The last 12 months have been incredibly challenging for theatres across the UK, which first closed their doors on 16 March 2020, a little over a week before World Theatre Day last year.
Now after a full year of operating under covid restrictions, World Theatre Day has come around again. We took the opportunity to sit down with creative leaders from two of Coventry’s theatres and reflect on an extraordinary year, as well as their hopes for the year ahead.
“My first significant action in post was to shut the theatre, which was slightly weird, I have to say,” laughs Kevin Shaw, who was appointed Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Albany Theatre in February 2020.
“On the plus side it’s enabled us to put a lot of planning in place for the future. So often when you work in the theatre industry, the urgent takes over from the important, so it’s definitely been helpful to have more time to work on those bigger strategic goals.”
Although they’d had a little more time to find their feet before theatre closures began, the Belgrade Theatre’s 2021 Co-Artistic Directors found themselves in a similar position. Appointed in Summer 2019 to oversee the theatre’s creative programme for the City of Culture year, their plans were just beginning to coalesce when lockdown began.
“City of Culture is something that a lot of us had been building towards for a while, so the anticipation of almost getting there and then being met by a lockdown was obviously quite disheartening,” says Balisha Karra. “But I do think it’s really prompted us to think a bit more broadly about what the Belgrade is for, the role we play in Coventry and our duty as a civic theatre.
“The work we do goes beyond just providing entertainment – we also have an important role to play in bringing communities together, supporting positive mental health and providing opportunities for young people. I think our priority at the moment is really to make sure that we are continuing to engage with and support those groups who were already such a big part of what we do.”
For Corey Campbell, whose own company, Strictly Arts, worked with the Belgrade for three years before he took up his current post, World Theatre Day is a chance both to celebrate past achievements and to embrace change, especially since the date also coincides with the Belgrade’s 63rd birthday.
“Getting to 63 years in itself feels like an incredible achievement, and during that time the Belgrade has pioneered so many things. We were the first civic theatre to open after the war, one of the first with public foyers and a café, and we started the Theatre in Education movement. So there’s a lot to celebrate, and I think that spirit of innovation and openness is something we want to see continue in the years to come.
“But at the same time, in 63 years, it’s easy to end up stuck in a certain way of doing things, and I think the events of the last year have really forced us to rethink a lot of that. It’s natural to want to hold on to things we understand and to have that desire to return to normal when you’re in a time of uncertainty, but the world dictates when we move forward, and we have to be ready to respond to that.”
But although the pandemic has definitely accelerated change and seen it come about in unexpected ways, it’s also important to acknowledge that, even before the covid crisis hit, Coventry’s City of Culture year was always intended to be a catalyst for change in the city, especially within existing cultural organisations.
The Belgrade Theatre, Warwick Arts Centre and the Albany Theatre are all undergoing major processes of refurbishment and redevelopment in preparation for City of Culture, and at the Albany and the Belgrade, this was coupled with new leadership who came with big creative plans.
“Part of my brief as Artistic Director and Chief Executive was to really focus on the Albany’s vision in terms of developing our participatory and learning strategy, as well as working on the creative programme," says Kevin. "We really want the Albany to become another creative hub for the city – somewhere for professionals, communities, and participants to come together.
“I’m delighted and slightly gobsmacked that we’ve been able to raise the money for our refurbishment in the middle of a pandemic, but I hope that will really help us to become a vital part of the arts ecology in Coventry.”
Although relatively recently appointed to the role of Co-Artistic Director, Justine Themen has been working at the Belgrade Theatre for over 15 years now, and has already overseen a lot of change during that time.
“The appointment of the Co-Artistic Directors was always about how we reconceive theatre for the 21st century,” she explains. “Part of that is having a more collaborative leadership model – so with three of us in post you have more of a mix of voices at the top of the organisation than you would traditionally have.
“But it’s also about how we lead the theatre. We’re all people who have come into this post with different relationships with different communities, and what’s important to all of us is making sure we’re actively listening to those communities and creating work that reflects their diversity of experience.
“We’re very used to a ‘heroic’ model of leadership, not just in the arts and culture but in all areas of society, and what we are trying to achieve is something that involves much more active listening and long-term processing, so we can make sure any changes are sustained beyond the City of Culture year.”
Despite the ongoing uncertainty, there are reasons to be hopeful: the increased investment and attention that the City of Culture title is already bringing should put Coventry in a better position to recover. Moreover, Coventry is a city that has built an identity around resilience and building back better after a crisis. So where would our theatre leaders hope that theatre in Coventry will be a year from now, on World Theatre Day 2022?
“I think theatre and the arts more generally are going to have a really important part to play in helping people recover from this year. After a year of being isolated and lives being turned upside-down, I hope that theatre will help to bring people back together, give them a shared sense of purpose and actually, just give them a really good time!
“Another thing I would like to see coming out of this is partnerships and collaboration across the arts in Coventry being strengthened, so that we’re all working together as part of a wider ecology. Unity of purpose and working through things together are going to be so important as we get back on our feet.”
“Beyond 2021, I hope that the Belgrade will stand for a level of bravery, both in terms of our relationships within the organisation, and in terms of who our programme is reaching out to,” says Justine. “In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and all the other things that have been happening this year, we’ve been having some very strong and honest conversations as a senior management team and I hope that the outcome of that is that we will continue to be bold about leading the way where other organisations are finding it difficult to tread.”
For Corey, it’s also important to be open to experimenting with new media and presenting work in different ways.
“One thing that’s been interesting from my point of view is that SeaView, which is the digital TV series we’re working on, felt like a big risk and a challenge for a theatre to be making when I first proposed it, but in light of everything that’s happened, it has ended up being one of the few things we’ve been able to progress during lockdown, because it doesn’t require a live audience in the building.
“I think that’s something we’re have to continue to explore. I’m a theatre-maker and I love a live audience, but ultimately my role as an Artistic Director is to serve our audiences and communities, so we have to adapt to the situation we find ourselves in, and I do think part of that will be theatres becoming spaces where live arts and digital arts can co-exist. Changes like that can be scary, but I think they’re also exciting.”
“I think the lesson for me is to not go back expecting the same thing,” says Balisha. “It’s not going to be what we’d originally planned. But what we’ve learned this year is that when you strip everything else away, what you’re left with is the people, and I think at the heart of every single person who works at the Belgrade Theatre is a passion not just for creating amazing works of art, but for supporting our communities.
“When I first started my job here, what amazed me was how quickly the city embraced me. Everyone wanted to talk to me and offer me a biscuit and talk about their experiences, and I love that about this place. Wherever we are a year from now, that’s one thing that I know will remain the same.”